Mr Blue-Sky-Thinker: visit the Ove Arup exhibition at the V&A


The Sydney Opera House. The Centre Pompidou in Paris. The Penguin Pool at ZSL London Zoo. What do they all have in common? Well, aside from each possessing an iconic look that encapsulates the stark, bold beauty of modernist design, they’re all the work of possibly the most important engineer of the 20th Century, Ove Arup.

However, the late Danish-British engineer didn’t just design classic, significant buildings; he built them. That’s because he was also the man who founded the Arup construction company, which today is so globally active it’s a multinational empire responsible for extraordinary projects like the comprehensive and complex Crossrail Overground and Underground train extension that will dissect London, right through its heart.

If any of this sounds impressive – and if you’re planning on visiting the UK capital this autumn – then you ought to make time for the exhibition ‘Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design’, which is running at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) until 6 November this year. Sure, as a destination, the V&A’s hardly just down the road from The Montcalm At The Brewery London City – should you be staying there – but it’ll be worth your trip to South Kensington, for sure.

Victoria & Albert Museum
Arup was perhaps so impressive and revolutionary a figure in his field because he pioneered a multidisciplinary approach to design – and so successful was that it arguably defined how engineering would be understood and practiced from that point on. Undoubtedly, his collaborations with leading architects during the 20th Century were pioneering in establishing new approaches to design and construction that drive them today; his firm’s legacy is visible in many of the most impressive modern buildings you’ll spy on a visit to London – and in other major cities around the world.

Indeed, imagination and innovation are critical to the creation of beautiful, functional buildings and examples at the Ove Arup Exhibition (models, prototypes, photographs, drawings and films spanning a century of engineering and architectural design) demonstrate how Arup’s inherent creativity underpinned everything he did. But, lest we overlook them, so too did his ground-breaking techniques.

For instance, Sydney’s Opera House was commissioned in 1957, but not finished until 1973. Why? Because during the 1950s and ’60s, Arup and his team were tasked – and, you might say, indulged – with discovering how to create and build the now iconic shells on its roof. They made their breakthrough by using a computer; an approach that, yes, changed the way engineers would work from that day forth. And you can discover and view for yourself that very computer – a hulkingly huge but impressive thing – at the exhibition.

While the exhibition’s selling point may be its references to and examples from Arup’s (and his company’s) world-famous projects, its focus is definitely on the man’s unique blue-sky-thinking. To that end, delightful small details like his own personal slides of the Opera House during its building, his doodles and even party invitations he came up with give you an idea of the man behind the genius; or the genius behind the man.

So, boasting previously unseen archival materials and excellent immersive digital displays, this is genuinely an unmissable attraction for the would-be designer or engineer in us all, not least because, fascinatingly, it also showcases recent Arup jobs, everything from Crossrail to ground-breaking ways to better harness acoustics and improve crowd flow, as well as solutions for that modern living space, the open source house.